Business COVID-19 Startups

Business As Unusual: Reopening In A Mid-COVID World

People across the country are eager for life to get back to normal in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but some entrepreneurs in the food and hospitality spaces say reopening their businesses will be anything but normal.

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Revolution, the Washington, D.C., investment led by America Online co-founder Steve Case, hosted a virtual roundtable on May 15 for an afternoon chat about “Reopening for Business in a World of Social Distancing.” It was moderated by Ron Klain, executive vice president and general counsel at Revolution. He previously served as chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden and senior aide to President Barack Obama, also acting as the White House’s Ebola Czar.

I was one of the 1,000 people who registered to hear what they had to say. To kick it off, Case shared with us two statistics from Resonate’s COVID-19 Connected Flash Study:

  • 28 percent of people will wait until the fall to return to dine-in restaurants.
  • 50 percent don’t plan to travel until 2021.

To understand how those stats will play out, Klain discussed the work that it will take to reopen so that customers, employees and businesses themselves, will consider it a safe environment. In addition to Klain, the panel included:

  • Kristin Groos Richmond, who is chairman and CEO of Oakland, California-based Revolution Foods, which delivers ready-to-eat meal kits for school children and families.
  • Will Lucas, founder and CEO of New York-based Mint House, a tech-enabled hotel company that provides a unique experience, offering the feel of a high-end hotel.
  • Brett Schulman, CEO of Rockville, Maryland-based Cava, a Mediterranean restaurant chain.
  • Ryan Simonetti, co-founder and CEO of New York-based Convene, which designs and services premium places to work, meet and host events.

Here are some of my takeaways for those who could not make it to the Friday virtual roundtable.

  1. Building trust will be the most important thing. Given the Resonate data, it will be a long time before many may step foot inside a restaurant to eat there. Schulman, who operates restaurants in 24 states, said his restaurants are waiting to reopen a few weeks or longer after states have relaxed their mandates. In addition, they may revise the “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” sign to add, “No Mask.” Cava also added a “cleaning concierge” role to each restaurant to wipe down tables and chairs between use.
  2. Employees are being retrained with safety in mind. All of the presenters said their employees are being onboarded and trained with COVID-compliant standards and procedures, and in some cases, additional benefits to encourage employees to feel secure in staying home if they feel sick. At Mint House, Will Lucas said employees are learning a 64-point cleaning protocol that includes cleaning first, then disinfecting–essentially cleaning every surface twice.
  3. Uncertainty will stick with us for a while. Revolution Foods plans to provide nearly 4 million meals this week, Richmond said. Her staff meets at 9 a.m. to tackle the challenge of what meal delivery could look like for children and adults over the summer and into the fall, which includes children eating in classrooms versus the cafeteria and alternating start/stop times.
  4. People want to be in the same room again, but it is going to be different. As Simonetti explained, when people come back to the office they will see new operating standards in place that pertain to everyone’s health and safety, as well as their psychological well being. Expect to have your temperature taken, expect to be assigned an arrival and departure time, expect your cubicle mate to be farther away and the snack area gone. However, don’t expect big conferences to become a thing again for at least 12 to 18 months.
  5. Face-to-face interaction used to be key in the hospitality industry. Emphasis on the “used to be.” Digital check-ins and check-outs, customized groceries waiting in the refrigerator and a plethora of amenities will be offered wherever you decide to stay when you travel, Lucas said. While hotels are sitting empty right now, those types of offerings, combined with proper cleaning protocols in place, helped Mint House take its occupancy from single digits in March to 53 percent in April, he said.
  6. Everyone is in the same boat. All of the panelists said they work with their employees to maintain a consistent corporate culture. Simonetti said that means being candid with what they know and don’t know, while Lucas said it was all about more communication. For Richmond, it was creating a tribute video for employees to show how much they are appreciated. Meanwhile, Schulman coined the takeaway I used at the beginning, explaining that everyone is feeling the same anxiety and hearing the same noise, but establishing trust (Takeaway No. 1) and leveraging long-term relationships will help a company figure out its future.

And those are just a few of the takeaways from the virtual roundtable. As some of the presenters pointed out, these types of virtual events are already part of our new normal and will continue to be so. I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears out for more discussion on what will surely be an important way of life for business owners in the coming months.

Photo: iStock
Panelist photos courtesy of: Revolution Foods, Mint House, Cava and Convene.

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